When Illiteracy or a Limited Education Helps You Get Disability

Older applicants are more likely to get disability benefits if they didn't graduate high school or they can't read or write.

By , J.D., University of Baltimore School of Law

Some disability applicants, especially older ones, can be approved under Social Security's "grid rules" even if they might be able to do some physically or mentally undemanding work. This is particularly true for claimants (applicants) without high school diplomas and for those who can't read or write. Here's how the grid rules work.

When you apply for disability, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will first look to see if your medical condition qualifies for automatic approval because it "meets a listing."

If your condition doesn't meet the complicated listing requirements needed for automatic approval (most don't), Social Security will look at several factors to see whether you fit into a disabled category in its "grid rules," or "medical-vocational guidelines." Applicants whose educational background makes it hard for them to be retrained may be able to qualify for disability through a "medical-vocational allowance."

The grids are a series of tables that tell you whether you're "disabled" or "not disabled" based on a number of details, including the highest grade you attended school and whether you can read and write. The other considerations used in the grids are:

  • your age
  • the skill level of your past work
  • whether you have any skills that could be used in a new type of work, and
  • your residual functional capacity (RFC).

Your RFC is the physical level of work (for instance, medium, light, or sedentary) that you can do on a full-time basis, despite your medical condition.

What Are the Different Educational Levels?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) divides education levels into the following categories, which are explained more fully below:

  • illiterate
  • marginal
  • limited, and
  • high school graduate or higher.

To determine your education level, the SSA considers not only how far you went in school, but factors like how long ago you completed your education, your hobbies, test scores, and other activities.

If you have an education that allows you to work at a skilled job, say as an associate or bachelor's degree, you'll be expected to go out and learn or be trained for a new job, unless your medical condition prevents you from doing even the easiest jobs available.

Let's look at how Social Security defines these educational levels.

Is Illiteracy a Disability?

The SSA will consider you "illiterate" if you can't read or write simple messages, even if you can sign your name. People who can't read or write usually have little or no education.

Not being able to read or write isn't a disability on its own, but the inability to read or write is a factor that Social Security considers in some disability applications. When applicants with severe physical impairments apply for disability, Social Security will look at whether they can read or write when deciding whether there are any jobs they can do.

But Social Security only counts the inability to read or write as a factor only for applicants who are at least 45 years old. Social Security believes that younger people have an easier time training for a new job, and that they can find jobs working with things (rather than data or people). Jobs that don't require working with data, computers, or people don't always require the ability to read or write.

Social Security uses the grid rules, explained above, to determine whether applicants over 45 are disabled, but being unable to read or write doesn't guarantee an approval of benefits. Here are some examples of how Social Security determines whether the inability to read or write helps someone get disability benefits.

  • A 53-year-old man applied for disability because of moderate emphysema. The claimant couldn't read or write, though he could sign his name. He hadn't worked in the last 15 years. Even though the SSA determined this applicant could do light work with moderate emphysema, given his illiteracy, he was disabled under the grid rules.
  • A 45-year-old woman applied for disability because of heart disease, diabetes, and fibromyalgia. She was unable to read or write. Her past work was as an unskilled packer on a production line. Her RFC was for sedentary work (sit-down jobs). Given her inability to read and write, the grid rules said she was disabled (sedentary work often requires the ability to read and write, and older, uneducated people are less able to train for new jobs).
  • A 37-year-old man applied for disability due to lumbar and thoracic back pain. He was unable to read or write. His past work was as a field hand, which is unskilled. The SSA determined he could still do a sit-down job. Even though he was illiterate, the grid rules said he was not disabled because of his young age. (Social Security believes that younger people may be able to get vocational rehabilitation training and learn a new type of job.)

How Marginal Education Affects Disability

If you didn't attend school past the 6th grade, the SSA defines your educational level as "marginal." Social Security believes that a person with only a marginal education has the reasoning, math, and language skills to do only simple, unskilled jobs.

The SSA considers a marginal education to be a limiting factor, especially for claimants 60 and older. Here are some examples of the grid rules for someone with a marginal education.

  • A 61-year-old claimant applied for disability due to arthritis in her hands and advanced Type 2 diabetes. Her past work was as an unskilled laborer, and she had a 5th-grade education. Even though the SSA determined she had an RFC to do medium work, because of her marginal education, the grid rules said she was disabled, and Social Security sent her an approval letter.
  • A 53-year-old claimant applied for disability due to severe back and leg pain due to nerve root compression in her lumbar spine. She dropped out of school in junior high. Her past work was in housekeeping for a motel chain. Even though the SSA determined she still had an RFC to do sedentary work, because she didn't graduate high school, the grid rules said she was disabled.

If you're unsure whether your marginal education will help your claim, you should speak to an experienced disability attorney in your area.

How Limited Education Affects Disability

If your last year of school was in the 7th to the 11th grade, the SSA defines your educational level as "limited." Social Security believes that a person with a limited education has reasoning, math, and language skills, but doesn't have the educational qualifications to do the more difficult tasks needed for skilled and semi-skilled jobs. For this reason, disability applicants with a limited education are generally expected to do only unskilled work.

Having a limited education doesn't guarantee an approval of benefits, but you have a good chance of being found disabled under the grid rules if:

  • you're older
  • you can only do a limited amount of physical work, and
  • you don't have any skills from your old job that can be transferred to another job.

Here are some examples where claimants were denied or approved in light of their limited education.

  • A 47-year-old claimant applied for disability because of heart disease and Type-2 diabetes. He attended school through the 8th grade and had an RFC for light work. His past work was as a parking lot attendant, which is unskilled work. Despite his limited education, he was not disabled under the grid rules. When he turns 50, however, he'll be eligible for disability under the grid rules.
  • A 57-year-old claimant applied for disability due to carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands. Her last year of school was the 10th grade. Her past work was as a seamstress, which is semi-skilled, but it didn't provide her with any skills she could use in another job. The SSA assigned her an RFC for light work. Because of her limited education and the other factors discussed, the grid rules said she was disabled. (Note that if she had an RFC for medium work, the grid rules would have said she's not disabled.)
  • A 53-year-old man filed for disability because of arthritis in his knees and shoulders. He dropped out of school when he was 16. His past work was as a sorter in a factory, which is classified as unskilled work. Even though he still had the RFC to do sedentary work, his limited education was one of the reasons why the grid rules said he was disabled. (After age 50, Social Security doesn't expect applicants to learn a new line of work if they don't have a high school education or job skills they can transfer to skilled work.)

Does the Inability to Communicate in English Affect Disability?

Social Security judges and examiners can consider the inability to speak English on a case-by-case basis when deciding what jobs a claimant can retrain for—for instance, a claimant in most areas of the U.S. without good English skills probably couldn't do the job of store manager, because that job requires communicating with employees and the public.

But after April 2020, claimants who are unable to read, write, or speak in English no longer get any help from the grid rules.

In the past, claimants who were age 45-49 whose doctors limited them to sedentary work could be granted disability benefits if they:

  • had no job skills (meaning they had only done unskilled work)
  • could no longer do their former job, and
  • couldn't speak English.

Claimants who were age 50-54 whose doctors limited them to light work could be granted disability benefits if they:

  • had no job skills
  • could no longer do their former job, and
  • couldn't speak English.

But Social Security's grid rules no longer recognize the inability to communicate in English as part of the grid rules. This rule change applies to new applications filed on and after April 2020 and to any pending claims.

Here's how the following workers who can't speak English, and can no longer do their jobs, are affected by this rule change:

  • Age 45-49, limited to sit-down jobs. Social Security now expects unskilled workers who are age 45-49 to learn enough English to get a sit-down job rather than go on disability benefits.
  • Age 50-66, limited to sit-down jobs. Unskilled workers age 50 and older who are limited to sit-down jobs will be approved for benefits whether they speak English or not (unless they have had recent job training to help them get skilled work).
  • Age 50-54, limited to light work. Unskilled workers age 50-54 who have been limited to light work and who graduated from high school will now need to learn enough English to get a light work job, rather than receive disability benefits. Unskilled workers age 50-54 who have been limited to light work and didn't graduate from high school will get disability benefits under the grid rules, regardless of their English skills.

How to Provide Social Security With Evidence of Your Education Level

If you didn't graduate from high school, you'll need to provide the SSA with proof of the last year of school that you attended. To get this information, contact the school district you last attended. It can also be helpful to give the SSA the results of any tests you took, evidence that you were in a special education program, or any other proof of your education level.

More Information

This was an overview of how Social Security classifies education levels and how the grid rules treat these education levels, but we have several other articles that will help you better understand how the grids work and how to understand the other factors used in the grids. You can learn more by reading our articles on:

Updated June 14, 2022

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